Friday, January 9, 2009

Project 1929: "Plum Bun"

If you look carefully at the photograph at left, you will notice that Jessie Redmon Fauset is wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key along with her string of pearls. In 1905, Fauset became the first African-American woman to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She was a graduate of Cornell University, where she studied languages: Latin, Greek, French, and English literature. She went on to earn a master's degree in French at the University of Pennsylvania, and to study at the Sorbonne, before becoming a teacher of Latin and French in the New York City public schools. Then, in 1919, Fauset was recruited by W.E.B. Dubois to be the literary editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, where she nurtured the careers of Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and other important figures of the Harlem Renaissance. She left The Crisis in 1924, devoted several years to writing and publishing her own four novels, then spent the rest of her career as a French teacher in New York City.

Fauset was extraordinarily well-educated, cultured, talented, middle-class, and black. A native of Philadelphia, she had been denied admission to Bryn Mawr because of the color of her skin. In 1922, she advised Jean Toomer to read the classics, which she found universal and color-blind: "It gives you a tremendous sense of fullness, and completeness, a linking up of your life with others like yours." At the same time, she seems to have advised Toomer to take advantage of his light skin to break into the newspaper business. "You've got personality," she told him, "and no prejudicing appearances."

Early in Plum Bun, a group of black friends gather for conversation at the Philadelphia home of Virginia Murray and her light-skinned older sister, Angela. The discussion is about the tension between somehow being a "representative of the race" and expressing one's own individuality. One of the characters wants to be a poet, but feels obligated to become a dentist, a profession in which he will be an example of competence and respectability. It's a difficult balance to achieve. As another character puts it, "You've got to consider both racial and individual integrity."

Angela says: "I'm sick of this business of always being below or above a certain norm. Doesn't anyone think that we have a right to be happy simply, naturally?"

Angela, weary of bearing the burden of her race, is able to pursue happiness by "passing" as white. This leads her to cut her ties with her home and family and move from Philadelphia to New York, where she studies art at the Cooper Union and attempts to find a wealthy white husband who will give her the freedom she desires. In the course of the novel, Angela discovers herself as an artist. In a sense, the novel is about the struggle of the black woman in America to secure "a room of her own" where she can create her art.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf talks about the difference between Jane Austen, whose mind "consumed all impediments," and the angry and indignant genius of Charlotte Brontë. Woolf says of Brontë: "one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot."

This is Angela's problem as an artist, and as a "coloured" woman passing as white. She is at war with her lot. Her race cuts her off from certain important opportunities, but denial of her race cuts her off from herself, her family, and her roots. When a fellow art student refuses to fight when she's denied a scholarship because of her race, Angela concludes that "you can't fight and create at the same time." Is it possible to fight against racism and still maintain one's integrity as an artist?

W.E.B. Dubois appears in Plum Bun in a pseudonymous cameo. After hearing one of his lectures, a white characters says: "He is a man, just that; colour, race, conditions in his case are pure accidents, he overrides them all with his ego." Again, I'm reminded of A Room of One's Own: the incandescent mind that consumes all impediments, the male ego overshadowing the page. Is race an impediment to be consumed, or something to be expressed and even celebrated? Fauset seems ambivalent. She seems to want, most of all, a color-blind middle-class society in which neither race nor gender are an obstacle to the freedom of self-expression and happiness.

Fauset has been criticized for her middle-class respectability, for writing "vapidly genteel lace-curtain romances." Plum Bun is, on one level, a conventional romantic novel, with a plot that's tied together with remarkable (but rather satisfying) coincidences. Critics perhaps have a tendency to disparage or, at least, overlook the middle-class artistic sensibility, to demand radicalism in art. But as Deborah McDowell says in her introduction to the Pandora Press edition of Plum Bun: "Fauset uses the romance to criticize it, particularly to criticize the way in which it idealizes love and marriage, solidifies traditional sex-gender arrangements, and thereby effectively limits women's goals and possibilities for fulfillment in non-traditional roles." She uses the convention of romance to criticize romance; she explores the limitations of the middle-class sensibility from the inside. In a sense, this novel of racial "passing" itself only passes as a romance.

I have to admit that I am particularly fond of writers—like Kate O'Brien, Sinclair Lewis, and Jessie Redmon Fauset—who have this kind of dynamic love-hate relationship with middle-class respectability and convention, who recognize both the limits and the rewards of middle-class life. All three of these writers explore the pain and the pleasure of families, communities, and traditions. In Plum Bun, Angela's journey is as much toward reconciliation with her class as it is with her race: "Her roots! Angela echoed the expression to herself on a note that was wholly envious. How marvellous to go back to parents, relatives, friends with whom whom one had never lost touch! The peace, the security, the companionableness of it! This was a relationship which she had forfeited with everyone, even with [her sister] Jinny."

At one point in the novel, Angela, after straying from the middle-class conventions of her youth, realizes the significance of those conventions: "And she began to see the conventions, the rules that govern life, in a new light; she realized suddenly that for all their granite-like coldness and precision they also represented fundamental facts; a sort of concentrated compendium of the art of living and therefore as much to be observed and respected as warm, vital impulses." This could be Kate O'Brien writing about one of her characters' relationship to the Catholic Church. Like O'Brien, Fauset is interested in the perennial issues of the individual in society, rebellion and tradition, the need for self-expression and the value of a time-honored code of conduct that holds society together.

Angela moves to New York hoping to find wealth and happiness with a millionaire husband. She ends up rediscovering the more moderate and less precarious happiness of a middle-class existence. Plum Bun is a story for 1929, when the bubble of the 1920s was about to burst, and it's a story for today, when its issues of race and class and personal integrity still resonate.

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .